James Wood interviewed in the Kenyon Review.
I then began to think of Smith’s novel in relation to a number of other large books: Underworld by Don DeLillo, Pynchon’s recent book Mason and Dixon, David Foster Wallace’s large book Infinite Jest, and so on. Was there some kind of genre here in which the cartoonish was displacing the real? In which the machinery of plot was also blocking out in some way a greater simplicity? I also thought perhaps there was an interesting borrowing from Dickens: It seems to me that if you look at a book like Underworld, it is in fact a sort of quite old-fashioned social novel like Bleak House–it tries to account for the connectedness of society at various levels. But, and here was the thing that struck me, strongly in relation to DeLillo, perhaps less acutely in relation to Smith, was that the connectedness was entirely conceptual. It was asserted by DeLillo and it exists on the level of paranoia and ideology and so on. “This is how we will account for the last fifty years of American life.” There was no human connectedness at all. There were lots of different characters; none of them had any real life with each other. The really striking difference from Dickens, say.
I can’t possibly even begin to agree with Wood’s take on DeLillo. To say none of DeLillo’s characters had any real life with each other . . . my God. What book did he read?
I’m not quite sure what Wood means by "the connectedness was entirely conceptual." I’ve never actually seen a physical connection between two individuals (except, perhaps, in cases of conjoined twins), so I’d have to assume that all connections between individuals are "conceptual." Sure, some you can feel, like when you see a movie and the two leads are said to have chemistry, but I think that if that’s what Wood is looking for in DeLillo, he’s misreading him.
DeLillo doesn’t strive to make you feel the connections between individuals, because that’s not the way he thinks individuals connect. His novels see the world in terms of meshing systems, paranoia and ideology being two of them. This may not be satisfying to what Wood wants to see in a novel, but–sorry–it’s true to reality.
I think this puts Wood in a bind. He professes to want realism above all–well, DeLillo writes very realistic novels, if we’re judging realism as accurately representing the fabric of reality. Wood may not like the fact that ideology and paranoia often stand in for the kind of warmth and emotion that he thinks should bind people to one another (and I agree that this is an unfortunate part of our world), but he can’t just wish it away by labeling that writing inaccurate or inartistic. So which is it? Does Wood want to festishize chemistry on the page to the point that it pushes out cold reality, or does he want verisimilitude, even if it means that novels will feel cold as compared to those of another era?
But more. More. Watch how Wood crows over Zadie Smith, like a prodigal daughter returned home. Better yet, he didn’t even have to browbeat her into changing her style. No, no, she was good enough to be self-flagellating:
You ask about Zadie Smith; she’s an unusually masochistic writer. And she actually didn’t need me to prod her, she was already disowning her first book, saying that it was something written by a juvenile, a sort of crazy tap-dancing–I’m sorry, I can’t remember the exact phrase. But she did indeed reply to me, saying that she felt that “hysterical realism” was an uncomfortably precise term for the kind of thing that she was doing. She then followed her first novel with a book that seemed to me to owe a great deal to the sort of Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s crowd. It was full of typographical games, numbered jokes, little boxed read-outs and so on. The third novel, just out, seems to me to really make good on her substantial talent. It’s actually a sort of old-fashioned, what you might call a sort of postmodern old-fashioned book. Postmodern because it has an explicit indebtedness to Howard’s End, but essentially old-fashioned in that it concentrates quite fiercely on the domestic of two families and so on. It’s a good book, I think.
Oh Zadie! I had thought you were lost to us! All that typographical gimmickry, all that hystericism! But you’ve recognized the error of your ways and you’ve written a nice novel fashioned on Howard’s End! And yes, you’ve remembered to include just a bit of the good old Po Mo, because it simply won’t do to write like we’re living in the 1920s, but never again so much Po Mo that you sound hysterical. Zadie, so good to have you home again. Now, off to your room, it’s just as you’d left it.
And remember, novelists, don’t go trying to figure out what the novel can’t do. Stick to what it can. Above all, avoid theory.
What the novel can do, you might define it in circular terms: it justifies itself by making an inquiry which only it can do. It doesn’t need to, I think, be infused with, and this is one of the things I don’t like about Franzen, for instance. I don’t think it needs to borrow the language, the languages of theory or cultural studies. It will make its own formal justification.
So then, I suppose novelists should stick to their pasture, theorists stick to their pasture, filmmakers stick to theirs and so on. I’m sorry, but this is a prescription for, well, for wandering around in circles. Very small ones. Especially when theory has, until recently, been outdoing the novel at noveling. From n+1 Issue 2:
Many of the [theory] classics of the era [i.e. 1970s, 80s] opened with feats of prose that American novels of the 1970s and 1980s rarely even attempted. Levi-Strauss could describe a sunset in Tristes Tropiques for longer than a sun takes to set. Foucault did fourteen pages on a single painting, Velazquez’s "Las Meninas." [For my money, the opening of Discipline and Punish, in which Foucault describes an execution in 1757, is riveting stuff.] . . .
Where, frankly, were you going to get your diagnosis of society–from Bret Easton Elliss’s American Psycho? Lyotard did it better in Libidinal Economy, and was much scarier–without pornographic bloodshed. A civilization that may have punished less, but punished better, administering its surveillance from inside one’s own mind (Discipline and Punish), or replaced the real with a mediatized world of simulations (Simulacra and Simulation), or had an economic incentive to reconfigure disparate knowledge as commensurable "information" (The Postmodern Condition)–well, that was very clearly the world we lived in. Whereas the itsy-bitsy stories of sad revelations in Best American Short Stories 1989–that was some trivial bullshit.
The best and most exciting novels of the same period, the ones that made you think the notion of a "Great American Novel" hadn’t been misconceived all along, were openly responding to theorists.
I’d add that many of the most successful books/movies of the 1990s packaged the above material into easily digestible frameworks; obviously The Matrix is the best example here. But imagine if artists, as Wood instructs, had kept to their own pasture. Never mind the Foucault and Baudrillard, just write more about human emotions. What kind of literature would we have had in the ’90s to say nothing of the ’00s?
I just can’t see how Wood expects novelists to accurately depict the world without adopting the language and ideas of that same world. What he wants, I think, is for novelists to write about 2006 using the style and tools of 1920. But why?
I was recently told a story wherein a visitor to southern Mexico described it as "just like a magical realist novel." Each morning his hotel was packed with flowers from a local peasant salesperson and he was assaulted with odor when he opened his door. On the street a man walked a leashed lion cub. In the train station a bag started moving on its own, and when its owner later arrived he pulled out a parrot and asked the man if he wanted to buy it.
Yes, life in Latin America can be as strange as Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, and life in America and Western Europe can be as strange as the minds of Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo. Even George Saunders, who writes incredibly surreal stories, has trouble outpacing postmodern capitalism. If these writers are hysterical, it’s because the society they seek to depict is certifiably insane.
Wood can go as long as he wants pretending that that’s not the case, that we all should read nice button-down novels that keep their tempers steady. He can do that, but he’ll be left behind. I’m sure he’ll read many pleasant books and find much to marvel at in their beautiful aesthetics, but as for the rest of us, we’ll be reading good books too. They just won’t be held captive to certain ideas about what a novel needs to be.